Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, shattering their own expectations and raising questions about the dark energy behind the surge.
Saul Perlmutter, 52, of the University of California at Berkeley will get half of the 10 million-Swedish-kronor ($1.5 million) prize, while Brian P. Schmidt, 44, of the Australian National University in Canberra and Adam G. Riess, 41, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore will split the rest, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said today in Stockholm.
Competing teams, one begun by Perlmutter in 1988, the other by Schmidt six years later, set out to study the most distant exploding stars, known as supernovae, according to the academy. They found that the universe’s expansion was accelerating, confounding their expectations that the pull of gravity would cause it to slow. Riess worked on Schmidt’s team.
“You get a lot of results in astronomy and physics that are said to be groundbreaking, but this was one that really, genuinely was,” Steve Rawlings, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford in England, said in a telephone interview today. “It’s a whole new component of the universe that we just didn’t know about before.”
The acceleration led scientists to speculate about the existence of a mysterious force called “dark energy” that is pushing the universe apart, the academy said.
Schmidt, who was born in Missoula, Montana, plans to teach a cosmology class on the subject tomorrow, he said in comments made by telephone from Canberra to the Nobel news conference.
“I feel weak at the knees,” said the researcher, who is a U.S. and Australian citizen. “I guess it’s one of those things, occasionally people mention it but you think it is probably never going to happen.”
Perlmutter said the work shows that discoveries often come from unexpected results.
“It was getting to the end of the century and we were thinking this would be a great millennial project, to walk around saying ‘the universe is coming to an end and we have the data,’” he said today at a news conference at UC-Berkeley.
Instead, the opposite finding raises the question of why the universe would have “this odd property,” Perlmutter, who was born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, said during a telephone interview. “You might expect gravity would slow it down, but it’s just expanding faster and faster.”
Riess, who was born in Washington and grew up in New Jersey, won a so-called “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2008. He was half awake when the call came from Stockholm because his 10-month-old son had woken up.
“There was this Swedish sounding voice on the phone,” said Riess. “I knew it wasn’t Ikea. I quickly realized the magnitude of it.”
Last year’s physics prize went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester in England for discovering graphene, a one-atom-thick “wonder material” that may allow for speedier computers and folding touch screens.
Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The Nobel Foundation was established in 1900 and the prizes were first handed out the following year. The first Nobel in physics was awarded to Wilhelm Roentgen for his discovery of X-rays.